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Willow School –

A Model of Ecological, Educational and

Social Excellence

(pre-school-8th grade)

by Jane Califf

The Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey is a very small independent school, pre-school – 8th grade, situated on 32 acres of woods, fields, streams and a pond.  As of spring 2011, there were only 125 students who pay tuition with subsidies available.   The goal is to have two classes per grade level and to keep class size to no more than 12 – 15 students. 


The school has been recognized for its innovative, environmental friendly design and construction by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental design (LEED) program.1


Most teachers outside of The Willow School do not have the good fortune to have a small class size and a large outdoor natural area to explore and to integrate into their curriculum. Teachers in a traditional school setting may feel that learning about this school, its mission, curriculum and its dedication to environmental education is not relevant to their reality.  However, The Willow School provides a vision of education that can inspire us to study their approaches to teaching and their achievements to see what could be adapted to larger suburban and urban schools.



On a rainy April day in 2011, I walked through the Willow School led by a group of middle school students and their science teacher, Michael Chodroff.  They all were passionate about the green design of their buildings and the surrounding acres. 


The students call themselves the Green Guides, one of the many clubs and committees they can choose to join.  These 6th, 7th and 8th graders researched how their buildings and grounds were designed and built and how they are used as a tool for teaching and learning.  I was one of their first visitors getting a Green Guides tour.


Highlights included: 


  • insulated walls made from shredded denim.  (A wall had a small glass window to show this.)

  • window sills made from barrels from a dismantled Heinz pickle factory.  (“Sometimes they still smell of vinegar.”)

  • a building made from a barn taken apart beam by beam, refurbished and rebuilt on the school’s campus for classrooms and other spaces.

  • counter tops constructed of currency taken out of circulation and shredded.

  • water for toilets that comes from collecting roof rainwater which is then stored in tanks under the parking lot until needed.  After it is used, it is pumped into constructed wetlands nearby that are planted with vegetation that absorb bacteria from the wastewater.  Then it gets filtered through the property so it can be used again in the bathrooms.

  • plaques in the bathrooms explain what components were sustainably built.  Ex.:  58% post-consumer glass.

  • water-free urinals saving about 45,000 gallons of water per year.

  • automatic faucets so as not to waste water.

  • paper towels are not chlorine-bleached.

  • solar panels that supply 17% of the school’s electrical needs.

  • lots of windows and skylights in hallways and classrooms facing east and west to harvest natural light.  (The founders of Willow School researched lighting and discovered evidence that the more natural lighting there is, the more awake students are and the better they perform.  They also believe in biophilia – that we have an innate love of nature.  This led to the decision that each classroom needed a door to the outdoors so that it would be easier to connect lessons with the outside environment.) 

  • reflectors above the windows that bring extra light into the room

  • censors on the ceilings.  Lights that dim or rise depending on the amount of sunlight coming in from the outside.

  • lights shut off on their own if they detect no motion.

  • temperature gauges in each room set between 65 and 80 degrees.  When a green light is on, the inside temperature is in balance with the outdoor temperature, so everyone knows to open the windows.  When the green light is off, heat or air conditioning comes on automatically.

  • recycled concrete used in the construction of the school that came from a Boston construction project where they were digging up old streets and sidewalks.

  • cork floors “because they are more sustainable than using wood, and they absorb sound better which keeps the noise level down.”

  • bamboo floors for the same reason and also “they grow faster than wood.”

  • an Eno Board instead of a Smart Board. Mr. Chodroff explains why:  “There are two reasons why we use the Eno Board:  It uses less energy and its production is more environmentally sustainable.  Whereas a Smart Board requires more electrical components in the production, and thus causes more pollution on the front and backend, the Eno Board requires a regular white board with all of the components in the pen.  Therefore, there are fewer natural resources being used to create the technology.”


The Green Guides were unable to take the tour outside due to the inclement weather, so through many windows they pointed out:


  • the garden where every class has a plot to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers.  There are spring, summer and fall plantings.

  • that second graders plant corn, beans and squash together as the Lene Lenape did,  which coincides with their curriculum.

  • a plot for the kitchen staff to grow organic produce for school lunches.

  • where they have a fall harvest soup celebration right before Thanksgiving break.  After the last vegetables are collected in baskets, they are cut up and put in a huge pot with some spices.  All day, people take turns stirring it; there is singing.  Finally, each person gets a bowl of soup served by the 8th graders.

    • Prior to this event, students create a gratitude tree with everyone contributing a leaf on which is written something they are grateful for; the leaves are taken down and read aloud as part of the celebration.

  • a weather tower built by architecture classes that provides the temperature and wind speed, which are posted to the school computer system.  This is the source that signals whether or not the air conditioning or the heating system is activated.

  • a bell tower, also built by students, to ring when recess is over.

  • a pond created so that students could study the life in the pond and its health. Over time, they have kept records of their findings, enabling comparisons from year to year.

  • a stream in the woods that is a tributary to the Raritan River.  Fifth graders study the macro invertebrates in the water, record the health of the stream and  report their data to the  Raritan Headwaters Association.  This helps them to realize the importance of environmental organizations in helping people to become good stewards of the earth.  (So far the stream has been healthy, so they have not had to take any remedial action.)

  • bird feeders that help students record birds seen on the school campus which they report to Project Feederwatch, a national citizen’s effort to track bird species and their numbers.

  • some of the thousands of native trees, grasses, perennials, shrubs and ground cover that were planted – all drought-tolerant and needing no irrigation, fertilizer or pesticides. In 7th grade, each student picks 6 – 10 of these plants, note the biological changes throughout the year and record their observations in their science journals.

  • Sugar maple trees on the campus are tapped for their sap in the spring and then students and teachers make maple syrup which is later served at a pancake breakfast.


As this amazing and eye-opening tour came to an end, the Green Guides sat down to lunch, I joined Mr. Chodroff and other teachers for a meal in the same room – where I was in for some more surprises:


  • Lunch is prepared fresh each day in their kitchen with ingredients from the kitchen garden plot in season.

  • Once a week, on “Tasting Tuesdays,” a new food is introduced.  At each student table there is a card with information about the new food.  Kids give teachers feedback on how they like the new food.

  • Students are seated at large round tables with one teacher who, through casual conversation, learns more about the students and any personal or interpersonal problems, which can help in their teaching and in resolving any problems that may surface.

  • Every month student are rotated,  so they have a chance to interact with more than a small circle of friends. Fifth through eighth graders and kindergarten through 4th graders are interspersed at each table in their separate lunch periods to help develop friendships across grade levels.

  • Kindergarten through 4th grade students have recess before  they have lunch to release pent-up energy so they will be more relaxed when they eat.

  • When the meal is over, there are separate buckets for trash, silverware, liquids and food scraps.  Before being taken to the compost bins, third graders weigh the food scraps and chart the results.  A record is kept for the entire year and this information is used to determine what foods should not be served again or need to be served differently.

  • For example, on pizza days, lots of crusts were thrown away, so a campaign was begun to get more crusts eaten.  Students who liked less cheese were encouraged to trade cheese for extra crusts from peers.  In this way, left-overs were reduced.  [The overall recycling program has a goal of becoming a  zero waste school.]

  • The compost created is added to the school garden plots.

  • Before each lunch period is over, students are given a chance to make announcements about up-coming events and responsibilities or even to read poetry.


Games and Sports at Willow School:  Cooperation vs. Competition


While eating lunch, I had an opportunity to speak with Brian Gary, the gym teacher.  He spoke about games and sports as a way to help build character, team spirit and concern for others.


“A lot of people put a negative spin on competition, but competition happens naturally in life.  What I’m teaching the children is that it’s O.K. to be competitive and to try to do your best, but it’s how you treat the people you’re competing with.  At the end of the day, you want to be able to sit down and have lunch with them and say ‘We played a hard game; we really challenged each other to do our best.’


“Cooperative games are a good way to initiate this because you take away the competitiveness – the old aspect – to get some understanding of fair play, respect and team building. Then I’ll easily start to bring in the new aspect of what competition is:  it’s O.K. to compete and challenge yourself; it’s O.K. to challenge the other people, but in the end everybody has gained.”


I asked Mr. Gary what he does if someone slips up and says something negative such as “You’re such a loser.”


“For my more competitive kids, if I hear them say things like that, I say, ‘Here’s what I want you to try next time:  if you see someone drop the ball, and you are upset about that, show them how you catch the ball;  show them what helps you become a good athlete;  that’s actually helping your team when you do that;  if you say, ‘You suck,’ or ‘You can’t catch,’ that’s hurting your team.  But if you go over and say, ‘Hey, this is what I do when I catch, this is what I do when I run,’ then you are building your team and making it stronger.


“And if this person is a leader, you’re giving him words to use as a leader…This is the age where you use a mantra.  A lot of times they get it right away;  sometimes it takes the whole year.”


Mr. Chodroff pointed out that anyone who wants to be on a team can qualify.  This means that teams do not have only the best players;  as a result, Willow School does not win a lot of games against other schools, especially at the beginning of the school year.  However, “because of this whole idea of cooperation, they are constantly trying to lift each other up, and we hit a winning streak at the end of the season…Other coaches talk about what good teammates they are and how gracious they are toward their opponents”


Mr. Gary:  “You should be able to look at the game for plays, for the beauty of the game is everyone playing in harmony; that’s what you’re really looking for.  If everyone is doing that, the team gains, both teams gain.  It’s easy to be the biggest, the strongest, because that’s very linear – stronger, run you right over.  What about all the other nuances of the game?  You want to be able to play the whole game.


“One time we were talking about how Willow was not as competitive, and we need to go out there and push a little bit harder.  Then a student said, ‘But Mr. Gary, we are Willow.’  I said, ‘But Willow does not stand for wilt.  You still have to try your best and do what you can.’  The student said, ‘O.K., that makes sense.’



Willow School Builds Character through the Core Virtues Approach


Every Monday and Friday, there is a “Morning Gathering” for the entire school;  Tuesday and Thursday, the lower school meets, and the middle school only if there is a need for it.  These meetings last about 20 minutes, and the emphasis is on building character through a monthly theme.  (Conversations can continue back in the classroom.)


Topics have included developing compassion, courage, respect, responsibility, gratitude, honesty, perseverance and forgiveness.  During the month, literature is read to students that exemplify the theme of the month, stories are told from real experiences that teachers and students have had, scripts are written by students and acted out, power point or slide presentations are given.  Teachers and students share leading these gatherings.  There is discussion on how the month’s theme can be carried out in one’s daily life.


I watched a 15-minute video of Mr. Chodroff giving a presentation on “Compassion,” using power point.  He defined compassion as “feeling what others are feeling and trying to help them in their troubles” and “feeling the pain of others and acting to end their distress.”  He gave a specific example from his own life:


He told how he loved to collect quotations and would tape some inside his locker.  One day a friend requested one, and Mike agreed if his friend would give him his locker combination.  He thought about what quote would be the most encouraging to this student, considering a certain problem he was facing. He found one, and when no one was around, he opened his friend’s locker and taped the quote to the inside of the door.  His friend was very appreciative.


Word spread and other students asked for him to put quotations in their lockers.  By the time he graduated, he had 100 locker combinations and 100 grateful friends.


Vivid stories such as this one call on students to consider how they can demonstrate a particular virtue in their own lives, and during “Morning Gatherings,” they are encouraged to share their experiences with their peers and their teachers.


Willow School teachers believe in direct and indirect instruction in developing positive values in their students.  A reference they use is the book Core Virtues, a literature-based program in character education, K-6, by Mary Beth Klee.  Even though the school is K – 8, teachers have found the book to be a useful guide for all grades as it has an extensive list of books to use at varied levels and a theoretical base and approach that goes well with the school’s mission and goals. 


The author points out that through the ages, stories have been main sources for teaching children moral lessons.  She believes that if schools become more pro-active in the culture of virtue, they will not have to be as reactive on conflict resolution.  “We don’t look for perfect children, but we want students who will admit when they’ve done something wrong and tell the truth in hard situations.  We want our children to play fair with their classmates and to have the generosity of spirit occasionally to say ‘after you.’  We want students who are sensitive to the feelings and needs of others in their class and who take the initiative to help out those in need.  We want students who, when they leave our doors, will be committed not just to themselves, but to their community and to the world in which they live.”  (p.19)


Another resource used by Willow teachers is the website of  The Greater Good Science Center:  This site states that “since 2001, we have been at the forefront of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds and altruistic behavior…By creating environments that foster cooperation and altruism, we help nurture the positive side of human nature.”


Willow teachers have found that the “Morning Gatherings” with their emphasis on core virtues have helped make students more conscious of their own behavior and more dedicated to implementing these virtues into their daily lives.


Minimal Testing = More Time for the Arts, Exercise and Clubs


Testing is not a focus at Willow.  In an independent school, teachers are not bound by state rules for testing students or state standards. However, they use the state standards as a guide in creating their own curricula.


Starting in 4th grade, students take one test a year because a record is needed for high school.  Test preparation takes only a few days.  The results are looked at for deficiencies in teaching not in the student.  When a child shows a particular weakness, teachers use this information to figure out a more effective way of teaching a subject.


The main way of evaluating students is through the use of portfolios that hold samples of their work at each grade level and which follow them from pre-school through 8th grade.   Despite the lack of test preparation, or because of it, students overall do well in the one test they take each year.


Teachers are grateful for the lack of focus on testing since it has enabled them to have enough time to teach the curriculum in depth and to be more creative in teaching their subjects with more time for discussion and special projects.


Willow has strong art, music and physical education programs as well as clubs that children can choose to join such as cooking, yoga, dramatics, puppet-making and free play and group games.


Middle School Advisory Groups


At the beginning of the school year, middle school students take a 3-day adventure trip.  They are clustered in groups of ten, each with 6th, 7th and 8th graders and a teacher advisor.  They go to an outdoor environment with the purpose of building camaraderie among the students, providing opportunities for teamwork, and integrating environmental education.


At the end of the 3 days, they create a mission statement on what they want their advisory to achieve.  Mr. Chodroff’s group created the following statement which was framed on a wall along a public stairwell under a photo of the students on a mountain during their outdoor trip:


“The mission of our advisory group is to improve our academic and social expectations and apply those behaviors consistently.  This includes taking care of each other, encouraging our peers and offering help, advice and friendship.  We will do this with respect, diligence, compassion and joy.”


There are 5 advisories for the middle school, and they meet 3 times a week – sometimes all of the students, a few, or only one with their teacher advisor depending on the need.  They discuss academic and social problems.  Teachers have the same students for three years, so they get to know them well and are able to help them more effectively with their varied issues.  When students are slacking off or doing something really well, the teacher may send the parents an email. Parents are encouraged to contact teachers for advice and help with their child. 


Mr. Chodroff has noticed that the students in his advisory try to live up to their mission statement.  He believes that the “Morning Gatherings” combined with the advisories have been the driving forces for achieving student goals.


When problems occur, teachers do not rely on a specific discipline protocol as many schools do.  They use class meetings with their students to explore what happened - referring to core virtues that have been studied and advisory mission statements to resolve them.


Students are sometimes asked to draw up contracts to help them focus better on their behavior and academics. 


Example One:  The 6th grade teachers met with their students to discuss how they were not living up to the Core Virtues program and their advisory mission statements.  They asked them to come up with a class contract on how they could improve and what they wanted to focus on.  The students held a meeting, drew up a contract, and all signed it.  This led to significant improvement.


Example Two:  The 8th graders were getting distracted with “8th gradeitis” in anticipation of the school year ending and going on to high school.  Shannon Downey, Middle School Director, sat down with them and instead of just saying “Take responsibility for your academics,” she asked them to make a list of specific behaviors that fall under this category which they could implement during the last two months of school.  This assignment was successful in helping them to focus more.



Mission Statement/Ecology/Earth Day/Community Service


Willow School’s mission statement says in part that the school “is committed to combining academic excellence and the joy of learning, and to experiencing the wonder of the natural world…to enabling children to develop an ethical approach to all relationships, to realize their full potential and to believe in their power to effect positive change.”  [From its website:  ]


The fact that this school was built sustainably and that its curriculum was developed with the idea of integrating the subject areas with one another and with a focus on preserving environmental resources is an example to its students that positive change is possible.


On its website under the title “Ecology” there is a description of what they want to achieve: 


“…how humans relate to each other goes hand in hand with how humans relate to their natural surrounding.  Service to our community, no matter how small or large, corresponds with service to our habitat, whether local or global.  Students learn to be aware of their natural surroundings and to take care of those surroundings by participating in them. Along with that participation is the sense of living frugally, without wastefulness and selfish exploitations merely for the sake of personal comfort or ease.  The impulse to recycle, to take only one’s due, and to hare one’s belongings with others – these are the dimensions of ecology upon which we intend to build healthy communities.”


They applied for and received a grant for a part-time “Service Learning Coordinator” who facilitates students and teachers connecting with local and global communities.  Local connections have included greater outreach for such projects as:


  • removal of trash and invasive plant species in township areas

  • river clean-ups

  • spreading mulch on a nature trail in a wildlife refuge

  • contributing some of the food grown at the school to a soup kitchen as well as helping out at the site.

  • Installing bird houses in the township

  • 8th graders participating in a four-day internship program in a business or community organization that captured their interest.


Global connections have included:


  • Holding a benefit for “Charity Water” which helps build wells in poor countries.2

  • Fundraising to help build an orphanage in the Kopila Valley of Nepal after a NJ visitor to Willow told them about the need for such a facility.


Mike Chodroff explains that his school has a different model for Earth Day since “every

 day is Earth Day at Willow:  recycling, composting, watching electricity usage, promoting diversity of plant species and water conservation.”  Plans for Earth Day are not simply learning about stewardship of the environment, but to apply what students have been learning all through the year.


In 2011, each middle school student submitted a proposal for a project of their choice that he or she would engage in over a two-month period and which would end with a tri-fold display board showing the work they had accomplished.  These boards would be viewed on Earth Day by students, teachers, staff, township citizens and government officials. The displays included:


  • a campaign by a student to keep his neighborhood clean.  He created a pamphlet explaining how to do this, which he put in his neighbors’ mailboxes.

  • a report on volunteering over time at an assisted living home and entertaining residents.

  • working in a veterinarian’s office.

  • collecting money with a community organization for animal rescue.


The projects were well-done and the event was a success. 


Student Testimonials


I interviewed 8th graders in a group and asked them this question:  How has being in a small school and so close to nature affected you?


Jack:  “Before I came here, which was in 6th grade, I was always inside and I didn’t really like to go outside.  I was kind of an indoor kid, but after I came here, I feel like I go outside a lot more often, and I’m more of an outdoors person.  I used to play a lot of video games, so I’m definitely off video games and outside. 


“We do a lot of things that you can’t do indoors.  I used to not be able to see outdoors from my classrooms in my other schools, and it did not make me want to go outside during the day, but now during the day I want to be outside.”


Alie: “In the curriculum, they teach us a lot about environmental education and everything, and instead of just letting it sit, they let us go outside and actually experience it for ourselves.  Last year we learned about phenology in science class, which is the [biological] study of the seasons.   We would go outside and do drawings and take notes of what was happening, so we could get into the study ourselves.  We took some pictures and learned about the changes and the different kinds of plants, so instead of just learning, we are experiencing it, and it helps you to retain it.”


Matt: “Connected to Jack, I think having the windows and the natural sunlight really affects your mornings and your health.  At public school, you go in on a Monday morning, and you just feel terrible and you are in a cement room.  But when you come into here, you have the bright sunlight, birds chirping; when you come in you’re not as drowsy.  You feel more connected with your surroundings, and it’s a lot better for your health.


“Also, connected to Alie with experiencing things, we studied mummification and actually got to mummify a chicken.”


Adam:  “This is the entire grade – a measly nine students, but at the same time, it has a pretty huge effect as to how we experience knowing each other.  Everyone knows each other here;  there is no grade boundary;  we hang out with people from other grades and it’s great because you really get to know each other…”


Alie:  “In addition to having students have more personal relationships with each other knowing everyone, it also fosters individuality in the classrooms.  The teachers know everyone, and everyone is kind of more different because there are such small classes that everyone pretty much gets a chance to say what they are thinking, and obviously you get more attention, so everything is kind of more individualized and meets the needs of all the students.”


Eliza:  “Adam was talking about how we have better relationships with the kids in our class… I was in public school when I was younger, so I don’t remember as much, but I do remember that I didn’t really look forward to coming to school…I was friends with a lot of people, but I wasn’t really best friends with anyone, and here I know that when I come to school, one of the things I look forward to most here is seeing my friends.”


Adam:  “That’s one of the special things about this school.  It really knows how to develop your character because if anything, you almost have no choice but to express yourself here.  This school is a very expressive school.  I mean, we have a great arts program.  It’s a lot of fun.  We have all different types of materials from bamboo tablets to old dried up brushes that we use for different effects, and it’s amazing how we can express ourselves that way through many other forms of media.  It’s great because we really do brush the lines with our classes, where we will have two classes work together…”




1Information about The Willow School was gathered during a personal visit, by email correspondence and phone conversations with Michael Chodroff and from the school’s extensive website.      


2This project grew out of a study among the older children of world poverty.  They found out that 30% of the people in the world do not have access to clean water and sanitation.  A bulletin board in a hallway had samples of student work under the title “Fourth Graders Study World Poverty.”  It went on to explain: 


“Using the United Nations curriculum on poverty, the 4th graders discussed the meaning of poverty, its causes and some of the issues people living in poverty face.  They have examined issues of poverty from the perspectives of food, health, housing, education, work and economic security.  Their posters offer a glimpse of some of their findings.” 


Using graphs and drawings, the posters pointed out ways to overcome poverty, including the need for well-paying jobs and educational opportunities,.  One poster depicted war as a cause of hunger; another showed how the environment can cause disease, i.e., through polluted water.


The student project of raising funds for clean water in poor countries is therefore not a shallow act of charity, but a way for children to take action to help resolve a serious world problem they have studied at a level that they can understand.  This can be quite empowering and help children to see that it is not enough to feel sorry about an injustice but to feel a push to do something about it.

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